Matilda (1996), dir. Danny DeVito

Alongside other adaptations of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction, Matilda is a film I remember strongly: each scene is a game in recalling with glee the moment that follows it. I can’t eat a bowl of Cheerios without remembering a scene that plays as obvious product placement displaying Matilda’s powers – a commercial inserted into a film. It’s a film of images that endure, whether it’s the sales speak of Matilda’s father Harry, the plastic wagon in which she drags her books along the sidewalk, or the assembly hall spectacle of the confection of the towering chocolate cake as a public act of revenge against the young Bruce Bogtrotter. It doesn’t matter whether Bruce ate the cake in the first place, or whether Trunchbull ate it and forgot about doing so. Accepting her word is the only way to survive; many teachers would pass the blame in the same way.

My introduction to the experimental, defining filmmaking of Nicolas Roeg had been through The Witches (1990); my introduction to the aesthetic whimsy of Wes Anderson was Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The BFG (1989) was likely the first DVD I ever owned, bundled together on 2 compressed DVDs with dual sides – alongside The Transformers: The Movie (1986), Black Beauty (1994) and Help I’m a Fish (2001). I read almost every Dahl work for children growing up, delighted at every paperback or copies that materialised in the school library. I watched every film, whether on DVD, VHS or as television broadcasts, including the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). In English class, we were given photocopies of extended extracts from his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984), to read over and analyse. Then there were Puffin’s different editions, adopting different house styles for the cover templates and ways of using Quentin Blake’s illustrations: faded copies from the 70s, 90s reprints, the 2001 editions with Dahl’s name in vertical type I read fondly, or the newer – and worse? – copies that followed in the years since I had stopped reading Dahl. With the release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Dahl’s name was given new prominence, with tie-in books, documentaries about his life and career, and a limited run of Nestlé Wonka bars attached with the chance of a Golden Ticket. I became fascinated by the differences between book and film.

Returning to the film in adulthood, it seems all the more devastating – and visible as more of a product. It’s a product of adapting a beloved British author for American family audiences, the same year as Disney’s similarly complex and dark film about recovery from an abusive family, James and the Giant Peach. It’s a film from the joint venture of TriStar Pictures that defined Sony’s 90s output, another film for parent technology company Sony to insert branded devices into the hands of FBI agents long before the Sony Xperia. Matilda is another case of actor-turned-director (and producer) – playing her father Harry and voicing as the film’s narrator – catapulted by Danny DeVito’s success in the wake of Batman Returns (1992) and Get Shorty (1995). DeVito’s narration is perhaps one of the weak points – an audio commentary provided by the director from a third person point of view removed from his character, adopting the role of Dahl – a storybook of the novella applied to endear and bridge and explain obvious narrative elements. 

The commercial decision to transplant an English narrative into an American setting and audience fits the instincts of previous and forthcoming Dahl adaptations, including his work for older readers, besides a few solely British productions – the television Danny the Champion of the World and Cosgrove Hall’s The BFG (1989), and ITV’s decade long run of Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88). In Matilda, the results come across as somewhat mixed, casting Welsh-German actress Pam Ferris for Miss Agatha Trunchbull, but Crunchem Hall juxtaposes yellow school buses and the U.S. flag with imposing grey, leering, decrepit school grounds that seems to have migrated into the country alongside Catholic immigrants. One can’t dismiss an American aesthetic either: the British settings and filming in Munich for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and in Pinewood for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both relied on the star value of American actors, Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp; Fantastic Mr. Fox uses a British farm, supermarket and even television reporters, but American sports, his style and cast of Clooney and Streep never feels out of place.

It’s inspiring that Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson’s current status as an activist, a bisexual icon, a fighter of fascism, her cousinhood with Ben Shapiro – seems supported by the text of the film. Did her few months in childhood working on Matilda help shape who she is today? Matilda must resist an authoritarian and corporal private school system, and advocates for the right to read in the face of destructive family she doesn’t get along with. The supportive friendship between Lavender (Kiami Davael) and Matilda is framed in shots between the two – and lit in a particular way – that it feels it could blossom into something else in later years. It’s a film with visible queer coding. Matilda place its source of child abuse in headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, a butch woman who laughs at the concept of heterosexual married relationships, and maintains her physical prowess even two decades after competing in the 1972 Olympics, with no partner but anger. James and the Giant Peach had its evil aunts that could equally be read as close-knit sisters or a lesbian couple. Matilda places femininity and the parental relationship with sensitive and encouraging teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) as an escape from abuse.

Some aspects work less well: why would the FBI have such an interest in Harry Wormwood’s misleading and corrupt car dealership to the point of surveilling the family in a disguised van, collecting notes eating fast food, making contact and engaging detailed questions in the living room with her mum, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), as speedboat salesmen, something Matilda can see through straight away – in a corporate America that regularly approves of unethical and illegal business that doesn’t benefit the consumer? As a self-made American man outside of an educational background that is regularly valorised and celebrated? With an FBI that concentrates its efforts on the actions of the American government and fighting against African American and leftwing activism with fatal consequences? Does the family really need to relocate to Guam, abandoning Matilda in the process?

Though it seems at times too intense and tonally inconsistent for children, Matilda is best read as a satire and an exploration of the harmful effects of parents and adults that neglect and abuse their children – an ‘all ages’ version of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). For an abused child, the film could be a lifeline for understanding their abuse and knowing there’s a way out of it. DeVito finds the core of his story in examining 1990s American identity. The Wormwood family is a victim of broadcasting practices that neglect informative and complex programming and literary adaptations in favour of diversions, the ludicrous capitalistic gameshow of Million Dollar Sticky. The ‘couch potato’ is an archetype that dominated media critiques in the 80s, 90s and 00s that seems to have receded as television viewing patterns shift, but it’s an image that carries a lot of power – conformity to the broadcast schedule is fundamental to the family’s interaction as a unit. Matilda’s desire to quietly read a book in the corner is not okay. There’s an irony to this: the Wormwoods don’t want to be bookworms, or surveying the pages that, in another lifetime, could have been built as wood. As parents, they refute the power of school and Matilda is failed and isolated by both her parents and the local authority unable to recognise she isn’t being taken to school. It’s easy to wonder whether Matilda’s older brother Michael (Brian Levinson) picked up words like ‘dick’ and his aggressive behaviour from his family and the TV. 

The way Trunchbull is able to maintain her power through subordinates isn’t surprising – kids and schools will put up with whatever shit gets things run. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse becomes normalised, and many schools are able to get away with it without oversight. How can you resist through nepotism between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey? The children that are thrown through windows and end up rescued by the manifestation of Matilda’s telekinetic powers, or fly through fields of flowers are corpses, quickly brushed over as just a ‘tragic accident’. The world of Matilda may seem heightened: impaled children bleed from sharp metal protrusions of being kept in solitary confinement. The tragedy in the film can be difficult to square with the family friendly jukebox soundtrack. The victims of Trunchbull’s tyranny include a victim of suicide, Miss Honey’s father Magnus, that Matilda reincarnates as a ghost – an unexplained death that still has questions all these years later. The tragedy that affected one childhood affects another generation, but DeVito utilises it as a plot device to explain why things are the way things are and scare Trunchbull away from the school. 

Matilda’s character plays as a pre-pubescent, supernatural Stephen King girl – a younger version of Carrie (1976) before the onset of menstruation and high school, or the kid from Firestarter (1984). It’s this element that displays the film’s most magical element, moving water and blackboards merely through the power of her mind. Matilda has become a figure for libraries and World Book Day to promote the power of reading alongside Quentin Blake’s memorable illustrations. She’s an easy candidate for neurodivergence, not through her magical powers but her dedication to one thing without really thinking about it, calculating a mathematical sum meant as a throwaway joke and her father’s accounting he pushes onto his children, or seeing past the veil of boat ‘salesmen’. She’s presented as a girl with a high IQ who can easily get into college in only a few years. But I’m thinking of Devon Price’s Medium article Autistic Superpowers. Matilda’s neurodivergent quirks that she doesn’t think about goes together with her literal superpowers.

Perhaps I see myself most in the hordes of books she drags home from the library, piling up around her bedroom. It doesn’t matter if she actually reads the books, or intends to read them soon, or place them in piles, or properly process their meaning and the words on their pages. I remember at the start of middle school where we were asked to fill out postcards with a sketch of our hobbies. I drew myself sat down reading a book in my bedroom, surrounded by a full bookcase of Roald Dahl books and Horrible Histories. It seems an image out of Matilda itself. In adulthood, it seems harder to consume so many books so easily, but it seems an autistic quirk that everything else goes out of the window – plans, priorities, adult responsibilities – because reading and finishing a book is the most important thing – to go onto the next chapter, however long it is. I become hyperfocused; this is the only thing. So it’s wonderful when she gets to have her talents and insights actually nurtured by a responsible adult. The dismissive nature of Matilda’s biological parents becomes confirmed when they so easily sign away the adoption papers Matilda wrote and researched herself, without a tear or a second thought. Matilda is the film for the kids who struggled to survive school.

Doctor Who: Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts & Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts

The 1992 VHS ‘compilation’ of Douglas Adams’ unfinished and untransmitted Shada (shot on location on 16mm film in Cambridge in 1979) comes across increasingly worse with age. It’s been maybe a decade since I watched a rip of the VHS uploaded to YouTube, long before any sign of an official DVD release. During frequent trips to Cambridge, I’d wonder whether I’d ever encounter a copy of the VHS tape in charity shops. This version retains the episodic structure from the scripted episodes and production intent and is characteristic of the series, unlike the ‘omnibus’ format adopted by the definitive 2017 version, incorporating newly filmed model shots by Mike Tucker, inserts, props, costumes, animation by Anne Marie Walsh (designed by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon), voice acting by the original cast and a new ending under producer/director Charles Norton, derived from rehearsal scripts, floor plans and set designs. As Norton noted to Doctor Who Magazine #520, he adopted the philosophy that it was “December 1979 and Pennant Roberts is ill and we got called in to finish the production”, allowing the freedom to edit and excise sequences.

However, the episodic choice is problematic given the nature of this version. With Tom Baker’s linking material, the serial is unevenly paced between episodes, with the later three episodes particularly affected thanks to the incomplete material shot in Television Centre (most of the completed material was within Professor Chronotis’ study) with absences especially in scenes on Skagra’s spaceship. The extant production material comprised five days of location material and two days in Television Centre.

The narration Tom Baker was supplied with is particularly ineffective in conveying the events of the story, even as it clings to the first person narration Baker was also burdened with the same year for the linking narration of the audio cassette tape of The Evil of the Daleks (released on the same day as Shada in July 1992). Despite the best efforts in culling together rushes, the editing is mediocre, with a reliance upon stills to fill in some of the unfilmed sequences alongside Baker’s narration. The hideous capabilities of early 90s video effects are ruined even further through badly rendered CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), without adjusting the contrast of the shots filmed in 1979 to match against grainy stills chosen as the background for the CSO shots.

The worst aspect of the entire effort is Keff McCulloch’s score. Although never reaching the heights of Dominic Glynn and Mark Ayres, I’m an apologist for the synths he supplied to the soundscapes of the Sylvester McCoy era. Although Mark Ayres’ score for the 2017 reconstruction, composed with an EMS VCS3, a Roland synthesiser, percussion and clarinets, relies too heavily on emulating Ayres’ friend, the late Dudley Simpson, McCulloch’s terrible score doesn’t even begin to help represent the uneasy transition between Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner’s (himself the producer behind the VHS release) tenures as producer and the late 1970s and early 1980s eras of the programme. McCulloch diffuses the comedic potential of Douglas Adams, destroying dramatic beats, with many moments deserving a score lacking what it needs. Despite the original 1992 VHS release being packaged with each episode of Douglas Adams’ teleplays, imagining every viewer in 1992 would pause the tape and compliment their viewing experience by visualising scenes within their heads seems a tall order, losing the story of any momentum.

Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

2003 CD artwork for Big Finish’s release of the audio drama

Shada was ‘completed’ properly in 2003 as a Flash animated webcast, still available with compatible browsers on the archived (pre-2005) Doctor Who website, produced by Big Finish, adapted by producer Gary Russell, illustrated by Lee Sullivan and animated by James Goss. Shada was transmitted between May and June 2003 as part of the BBC Cult online strand in an era of webseries prior to the emergence of YouTube as a platform and the investment by networks and studios in streaming television. Perhaps one of the most glorious aspects to emerge from the entire animation is this music video to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001), and is worth enabling and redownloading Flash – no matter the security concerns – for this express purpose.

This version is rather special to me. Circa Christmas 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late at night as an omnibus of the audio version played on BBC Radio 7, staring at the black screen on the 4:3 image of the silver television. Almost midnight, the lights were dark; the sound kept to a minimum. My mum came in midway through to drag me, reluctantly, to bed. It was my introduction to Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor (before I bought the DVD of The TV Movie the following year from the closing down Norwich BBC Shop, subsequently The Television and Movie Store), but also my introduction to Romana (Lalla Ward), K9 (John Leeson) and perhaps the classic era as a whole. Significantly, it was my introduction to Big Finish: across 2006 and 2007, I recorded the adventures of the Eighth Doctor, Charley and Lucie onto cumbersome DVD-Rs, inspiring my own pursuit of writing and performing my own audio dramas in the late 2000s, and has since desecrated my wallet through continual sales.

So maybe it’s hard to approach this objectively. But it’s so joyous both Shada and Scream of the Shalka are available on disc, with a high quality soundtrack beyond the capabilities of early 2000s internet (unfortunately there is some, but not much, pixellation in a few shots). Flash animation is unfortunately a lost art that created my formative years of playing Flash games, making Flash animations in school lessons, or the complexities and imagination of web design not engineered for compatibility with touchscreen devices which didn’t yet exist. No matter the understandable security concerns, the death of support for Flash is a blow against the history of online culture, in particular through gaming and animation sites like Newgrounds, as much as the drowning of Yahoo!’s Geocities was to the infrastructure of decades of websites.

The animation is simplistic, dragging and enlarging illustrations across the frame without much ‘animation’ as such – more a colour storyboard with additional motion elements. But there’s a charm to seeing the basic elements of a new medium develop as much can be felt watching the early silent shorts of the 1890s through 1910s. Shada improved upon the still images of Death Comes to Time (2001) and Real Time (2002), before reaching the apex of more complex fluid, solid and professional animation with Cosgrove Hall’s Scream of the Shalka the same anniversary year. Though the more complex animation of Scream of the Shalka wasn’t necessarily better (as recounted in the DVD documentary Interweb of Fear), putting a strain on dial-up with long loading times between scenes. Doctor Who’s three decade relationship with analogue videotape had ended with Dimensions in Time (1993) and The Curse of Fatal Death (1999); its relationship that began in the 1960s with photochemical film ended with the TV movie. Shada and BBCi’s other productions are the first shift – beyond the Restoration Team’s DVD masters – of the series into a widescreen digital workflow before the returning series made this standard. 

The coproduction with Big Finish (who later collaborated again with the BBC on The Davros Collection DVD boxset and the animated reconstruction of The Reign of Terror) lends a highly effective component: Gareth Jenkins’ sound design and Russell Stone’s score are the most important, developed elements, where performances and effects come first; the animation is complimentary more than anything else. Despite both characters’ curly brown hair (one of which is a painful wig), Tom Baker and Paul McGann are two highly different actors: McGann doesn’t have the same comedic energy Tom Baker brought to his incarnation, but it’s still wonderful to hear him making these lines his own, adapting where appropriate but still keeping Douglas Adams’ script. As ever, his voice creates a Doctor with a joie de vivre, and with only the TV movie and The Night of the Doctor (2013) as televised stories, more audiovisual material with this incarnation is always precious. The changes to this version make the prospect of the 2017 completion worthwhile: the Eighth Doctor carries the shoulders of every other Doctor, an interim Doctor without a defining broadcast series, dealing with his own timestream in the novels The Eight Doctors andconspiracy theories in War of the Daleks (1997), and the constant return of numerous villains and his granddaughter Susan in comics, novels and audio dramas. Cubicle7’s sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor for their RPG Adventures in Time and Space conceives of a campaign for the incarnation transported from the Time War across the adventures of his past and future incarnations, including the adventures of Battlefield (1989), without his own era to rely upon.

The prospect of a Shada that never happened as proposed by Gary Russell’s prologue on Gallifrey with the Eighth Doctor and Romana – the Fourth Doctor and Romana were taken out of time using archival footage from the story in The Five Doctors (1983), an element adjusted to facilitate the VHS release with the 1995 special edition – makes a certain meta sense, but it’s equally destroyed by the series’ own narrative rules (and the 2012 novelisation by Gareth Roberts); an excuse to explain away the absence of Tom Baker. My heart goes out to Lalla Ward and John Leeson for performing the story so many times, across the rehearsals and mounting in 1979, the webcast and audio drama, Ian Levine’s 2011 animation, the 2012 unabridged audiobook and the 2017 version.

That said, it provides this version’s greatest strength: it can honour the recently and unexpectedly departed Adams, who had himself become involved in the digital space through Starship Titanic (1998) and the H2G2 encyclopaedia website (this animation is dedicated to his memory), but also the ability to do its own thing with his script within the medium’s limitations and strengths. The change in voice cast allows not only a shift in character design, but also a change in era specific effects and locations (the TARDIS’ exterior and console room in particular) and the imagination of expansive animated sets: this is Shada for 2003, not 1980. Noticeably, the bicycle chase is noticeably condensed given the complexity of more visual scenes. Rather than definitive, the webcast a fun alternative just as the (incompatible with continuity) Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), with their own individual strengths and detractors compared to their televised counterparts. I’m so glad this version exists.

Candyman (1992), dir. Bernard Rose

Cover of Arrow Video Blu-ray release

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.

Candyman.

As much as I adore Hellraiser (1987) for its resonant queer themes and exploration of female sex positivity and BDSM culture, Candyman is absolutely remarkable. Its grounding in the juxtaposition between the horrific actions of graduate student Helen (Virginia Madsen) – who seems very much sane – and its supernatural origins – really drives this home. There’s a depressing cyclicality in the film’s violence and fears, within not only the urban legend – mutating, transferring, translating – but also in the gentrified, ghettoised Chicago city architecture alluding to the city skyscrapers of 1970s New York in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) in architectural, geometric aerial shots thanks to Philip Glass’ haunting cries of a score – built over, redrawn, languishing in engineered poverty. The Candyman mythos emerges from the outside, just as slavery brought forward ships from colonies – and its own legends and stories with it. The weight of Candyman isn’t only the cycle of psychological harm, but the weight of history. There’s such a strong symbolic resonance that stretches back centuries – and millennia – from baby snatchers, the imagery of the hook and walking into the fire – and coming through scathed.

Candyman drives through racial conflict – white academia wanting to explore African American mythology from the outside, not only in ethnicity but in privilege, status, accessibility and wealth. Walking into spaces coded as unsafe and as gang culture. A male dominated establishment built on questionable relationships with professors, and women attempting to re-conceptualise the exploration of those ideas and stories. The film’s white characters refuse to believe the myth, but the African American characters known all too well to stay away and never touch it – defecated lavatories, the sting of bees, decay, ruin and graffiti. Even within the film’s penultimate scene, the mourning white gathering by the tombstones is confronted by a horror: the community of the ghetto walking in a funeral procession, with their own connections and stories.